Tory peer faces questions over links to cryptocurrency lobbying firm

A former campaign manager to Boris Johnson who was appointed to lead an education quango is facing fresh questions over his role in a cryptocurrency lobbying firm.

James Wharton, a peer and former MP who chairs the Office for Students (OfS), has launched a new public affairs company that pledges to “help clients navigate the complexities of Whitehall and Westminster” and specialises in “disruptive” highly regulated sectors.

The company, NorthPoint Strategy, is now managing an organisation calling itself the UK Cryptoasset Business Council (UKCBC).

The UKCBC emerged last year after it was established by former Tory staffers working in the lobbying sector, and began to build connections within parliament.

Correspondence released under freedom of information laws showed how the UKCBC has been writing to ministers and civil servants, as well as meeting with Treasury officials and senior ministers in pursuit of its aim for the UK to become a global hub for cryptocurrencies as regulations around the nascent sector evolve.

The Labour party, which described Wharton’s appointment to the OfS in 2021 as “another example of cronyism”, criticised Wharton’s new venture as such patronage “rearing its ugly head again”.

“This is the latest in a long line of examples of the chair of the Office for Students putting his political interests above the interests of students,” said Matt Western, Labour’s shadow minister for higher education.

“Students rightly expect swift action from the independent regulator on matters that affect them the most. It is less than clear how Lord Wharton’s additional commitment helps further those interests.”

There is heightened concern about cryptocurrencies amid an upsurge in lobbying around the unregulated sector.

The House of Commons Treasury committee has called for consumer trading in unbacked cryptocurrencies to be regulated as gambling. A report by the cross-party committee of MPs stated that cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin have no intrinsic value and pose significant risks to consumers, given their volatility.

The UKCBC is staffed by former Tory aides and officials and was set up last year by a public relations consultancy, Pepper Shackleton Wellard (PSW). However, it has no website and its LinkedIn profile initially showed no details of which companies are really behind the organisation. Following inquiries , it was updated to include a list of “associated firms”.

PSW only recently declared a breakdown of the UKCBC’s members in its latest declaration – covering January to March this year – to the register of consultant lobbyists. The council is now being managed by NorthPoint Strategy, which is headed by former PSW executives. One of them is Simon Jennings, a former chief of staff to a senior Tory minister, who is also the UKCBC’s director.

Heavily redacted minutes from a meeting between the UKCBC and Treasury officials noted the council was “not a trade assoc, but a special lobbying vehicle”. According to the notes, they also “highlighted that they are interested in education around crypto, and in policy”.

It also submitted evidence to the Treasury committee’s inquiry on cryptoassets, without volunteering which companies were funding it or who its members are.

Other correspondence shows the UKCBC wrote to civil servants to invite Andrew Griffith, then financial secretary to the Treasury and responsible for new regulation of the sector, to a winter drinks reception hosted by the council on the terrace of the House of Commons, with other MPs. At Christmas, it also hosted a free drinks party in a pub for all staff of MPs.

A month ago, a meeting took place between the council and the trade minister Dominic Johnson. A LinkedIn post showed that lobbyists for four firms – Kraken, Galaxy Digital, Luno and BCB – were present.

Other correspondence was directed to Laura Mountford, the deputy director of payments and fintech at the Treasury. A meeting subsequently took place between the UKCBC and Treasury officials last year.

There is concern among MPs and regulators about the stability of cryptocurrency after the collapse of FTX, the US cryptocurrency exchange.

NorthPoint Strategy, of which Wharton is the chair, was registered in February with Companies House in filings that also stated that he was a majority shareholder. He declared his shareholdings, chairmanship and directorship of the company in parliament’s register of interests.

A NorthPoint Strategy spokesperson said the company was fully compliant with all applicable rules and regulations and that membership of the UKCBC is public.

Details of their membership were provided in response to the Treasury’s consultation on the “future financial services regulatory regime for cryptoassets”, which was posted on LinkedIn and in a recent return to the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists.

A Treasury spokesperson said: “Government officials have consulted with well over 50 crypto organisations – including one meeting with UKCBC – to ensure our new cryptoasset regulatory regime achieves robust, transparent, and fair standards.”